On October 27, the European Union at its General Affairs and External Relations Council Meeting in Luxembourg decided, as expected, not to renew the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan in the aftermath of the Andijan uprising in 2005. Ultimately, the case has revealed a profound lack of strategic thinking on the side of the EU and recalls an important lesson for European diplomacy: that sanctions are an instrument for gaining compliance, and that the latter is a matter of leverage – for both sides involved.
BACKGROUND: In November 2005, the EU imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in response to the Government´s reluctance to allow an independent investigation of the uprising in Andijan in May the same year, where reportedly hundreds of civilians were killed by security forces. The EU sanctions, mostly symbolic in nature, did not hit the Uzbeks very hard. This is especially true with regard to the arms embargo, as trade in military equipment or even “dual use” technology, has never played a significant role in the EU’s relations with Uzbekistan. The second part of the sanctions, the suspension of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, had no immediate impact either, as it did not impede the implementation of projects already approved. The only part of the sanctions of more than just symbolical value was the visa ban on officials deemed by the EU to be directly responsible for the use of force in Andijan.
The visa ban, however, was suspended in October 2007 and ultimately abandoned in October 2008. The remaining part, the arms embargo, was to expire in October 2009 – unless the EU agreed on a new package of sanctions. It did not, however, and this is due above all to a more or less outspoken confession that the sanctions have been a complete failure.
Instead of making Uzbekistan comply with international law and EU demands, the sanctions have turned into an instrument for the Uzbek regime to play hardball with the Europeans. The main reason for this is the growing strategic importance of Uzbekistan, which has been supporting the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan since October 2001 by granting over-flight rights and leasing military bases to the United States and Germany. In July 2005, however, following the State Department’s criticism of human rights abuses, Uzbekistan terminated the agreement which had previously permitted U.S. Forces to use the Karshi Khanabad (K2) airbase in the country´s south. The step severely reduced NATO’s room for maneuver, but Germany was still allowed to use the base at Termez for logistical support to ISAF in Afghanistan. This provided the Uzbek regime with powerful leverage, which it did not hesitate to make use of after the sanctions had been imposed, for example by restricting overflight rights for those European NATO members that took a more principled stance with regard to the sanctions and criticized the Uzbek regime for continuing human rights abuses.
The stalemate of Uzbek-American military cooperation, together with the sanctions imposed by the EU, led to a temporary strategic reorientation of Uzbekistan towards Russia and raised Uzbekistan’s bargaining power vis-à-vis the Western alliance. Instead of complying with the demands the sanctions were tied to – to allow an independent investigation into Andijan and to make serious efforts to improve the human rights situation – the Uzbek Government demonstrated a heightened assertiveness which has made substantial discussion on disputed issues virtually impossible. The subsequent freezing of relations stood in stark contrast to the EU’s intentions, which had just been laid out in the “Strategy for a New Partnership with Central Asia”. The document, developed under the German EU-presidency and adopted by the European Council in June 2007 envisages an enhanced engagement in virtually all policy areas and has become the overall framework of reference in the EU´s dealings with Central Asia.
IMPLICATIONS: Thus, it was clear from the onset that the consequences of the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan would come much more at the expense of the Europeans than of the target country. From the beginning, therefore, some member states (among them Germany, France and Italy) were ready to lift the sanctions as soon as possible, and they were willing to accept even the slightest signal for compliance with some of the demands concerning human rights issues.
Among the steps made by Uzbekistan, which intended to meet the Europeans half way, were the release of several prominent human rights defenders, the abolition of the death penalty, the ratification of conventions against child labor, the introduction of habeas corpus and the resumption of ICRC prison visits. Last but not least, a regular Human Rights Dialogue has been established. Its contents and modalities have remained opaque, however, and its impact is at best doubtful. As independent monitoring of the implementation of the commitments made by Uzbekistan, for example the banning of child labor but also the much-touted habeas corpus, is actually impossible, it is hard to say whether they signify any progress in the country’s human rights situation. In addition, the core condition to which the sanctions were tied – an independent international investigation into the Andijan uprising – has not been met, implying that it is still unclear what precisely happened in May 2005.
Instead of leading to a visible improvement in the field of human rights and rule of law in Uzbekistan, the sanctions have become a demonstration of the ineffectiveness of EU human rights conditionality. To a certain amount this is due to the increased strategic importance of Central Asia, a trend which was most favorable to the Uzbek Government’s politicking. But it is also due to the lack of clarity about the priority given to human rights with regard to other policy fields in the EU’s dealings with Central Asia. The promotion of human rights and the rule of law are among the seven areas of engagement in the EU Central Asia Strategy. But these areas are not explicitly prioritized among each other, which unavoidably leads to trade-offs between the more principled goals of EU foreign policy (such as the promotion of good governance and human rights) and the short term interests of individual actors inside the EU, including those individual member states which had favored a “pragmatic” approach towards the Uzbek regime for military-strategic and other considerations.
CONCLUSIONS: The sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan have been completely unproductive – not necessarily for the Uzbek regime, but for the EU. Instead of making Uzbekistan comply with international law, the sanctions have turned into an instrument for Uzbekistan to actually set the conditions for cooperation with the Europeans. Given that the war in Afghanistan will remain a strategic priority for both for the U.S. and the EU member states, the trade-off with regard to human rights will persist, making the defense of European norms and values vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes a major challenge in the years to come.AUTHOR’S BIO: Andrea Schmitz is research fellow and deputy head of the Russian Federation/CIS division at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. She has been working on Central Asian political developments and on the Central Asia policies of the EU, the U.S. and Russia.